Green River Festival Showing Its Roots
The 30th Anniversary of the Green River Festival in western Massachusetts has just concluded. This “roots plus” festival continues to add to its legacy and its reputation as “essential” (NYTimes) and “one of the must-see music festivals” (Rolling Stone). What began in 1986 as a three band, five hour, free celebration has blossomed into a three day, three stage, extravaganza of roots music. Headliners like Dawes and Tedeschi Trucks Band brought in the weekend crowds while NRBQ and Peter Wolf brought a nostalgic sense to Friday evening’s offerings. After all, NRBQ was one of those original three bands invited in 1986! The weather forecast did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands attending. The only glum faces were those of the hot air balloon crews who realized that their part of the festivities were casualties of the damp and wet conditions.
Wet weather in July is never out of the equation in New England, and Green River has had some to deal with in the past such as Hurricane Bertha in 1996. The festival organizers erected a football field size tent to assure fans of Guy Clark and Roomful of Blues that the show must go on. This weekend had its share of rain, drizzle, and fog but all of the musical acts went off like clockwork. The hot air balloons cancelled for safety reasons but spirits were rising high over the gorgeous hills surrounding Greenfield Community College.
The reasons for such high spirits were many. Amazing food vendors tantalized with exotic and traditional fare and the two beer tents were busy selling over 100 kegs of beer,wine and cider. Creative kids’ events along with dozens of cool vendors enhanced the friendly “county fair” relaxed vibe. However, the reason why this fan was here was clearly Signature Sound’s diverse lineup of musical talent. Forty bands on three stages over three days had whet our musical appetites. Fans of every roots genre had some must-see band, from honkytonk country of Margo Price and Shovels and Rope, to the New Orleans brass bands of The Soul Rebels, Big Sams Funky Nation and Charles Neville. The indy rock crowd could catch rising stars such as local band And the Kids or be awed by the chronically-under appreciated WinterPills. Plenty of acoustic singer songwriters to catch from Lula Wiles to Peter Mulvey and Anthony D’Amato. The reggae beats of The Alchemystics to the R&B rhythms of The Suffers were available to those fans just as long as it didn’t conflict with the sets of genre- busting bands like DustBowl Revival or The Birds of Chicago. Fans of the vibrant local Massachusetts scene could focus on the sounds of Lux Deluxe, Colorway, Sonya Kitchell or Mikey Sweet. Throw in Bridget Kearney’s (Lake Street Dive) side project of West African music or the blues of The North Mississippi All Stars or The Greyhounds and a Tom Waits tribute and you’ve just about covered all the bases of what we call the “roots of American music”.
The “problem” with festivals is not the lack of choice but rather the plethora of choices and Green River exemplifies this dilemma. The festival is smaller than the massive Newport or Greyfox summer events but the 3-5000 folks appreciate the ability to wander among the stages and always have a great vantage point to appreciate these artists along with superior sound to the bigger venues. So, instead of worrying about “missing” something I was able to roam freely to catch sets by dozens of acts. I caught an all-female mariachi band along with a latin-metal band called XIXA that was like watching Zorro shred a Nirvana cover. All really without missing any of the bigger acts. And there were a handful of acts that this music fan couldn’t miss.
Friday night has been added to the Green River festival in the last two years which allows even more great music to be available. This year was astounding. NRBQ’s and Peter Wolf’s sets had many wondering if the weekend could match the intensity and enthusiasm. Longtime Western Mass fave NRBQ had their fans dancing to their entire 30 year catalog. They had “their mojo working” all set. The ageless Peter Wolf took the stage all in black with a gold lame jacket, sounding like it was 1972 Full House all over again. He peppered in songs from his excellent new release, A Cure for Loneliness, along with deep cuts from his J. Geils years. The highlights were many but the crowd roared when the first notes of “Give It to Me” cued up a set closing “Looking for a Love” and” Must’ve Got Lost”. Great way to end the first night of a weekend of amazing music.
Saturday’s sets were littered with ten hours of choices. My priorities were to catch Amy Helm in the afternoon but sets by Anthony D’Amato and Lula Wiles beckoned first. The rain threatened often but the “weather gods” held off. The Handsome Strangers took the stage with a relaxed and happy Amy Helm. Amy grew up in the musical family with few peers. She has been integral to her father’s (legendary Levon) post-Band work, especially in organizing the Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, NY. Her set ominously began with a rocking “Didn’t It Rain” confidently into a strong version of “Gloryland”. Amy Helm honed her skills in the band, Olabelle, and played bass, guitar and most often mandolin during her set. It was only when she picked up the oversized mallet for a huge kettle drum which began a gorgeous version of Levon’s “The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down” did things get emotional. The ghosts of those musical ancestors were evoked not for the last time when an emotional Amy Helm closed her set with a hymn taught to her by her father. The simple biblical lyrics touched everyone deeply. There simply wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. A misting over the crowd seemed like a blessing for us all. While Dawes was the closer later that night; many were already satisfied.
Sunday dawned grey but dry and we were all back for another full day of high expectations. Musically, I was very much looking forward to the Birds Of Chicago set. The husband and wife-led collaborative didn’t dissappoint. JT Nero’s songs are written expressly for the charismatic and talented Allison Russell. A large curious crowd had gathered and we were soon spellbound by the gorgeous title cut from their latest release, Real Midnight. Allison plays banjo, uke, and clarinet while also showcasing her incredible vocal range and passionate delivery. JT Nero also sings and plays guitar but these birds soar when Allison leads the choir. And the choir, we all became. Once again, ancestors and those passsed were summoned with a stirring version of the Allison-penned “Barley”. It’s written in the traditional mode as a tribute to her late Grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and who was still able to communicate through song. It was very touching and the crowd had “found’ a new favorite band.
The “Wheels of Soul Revue” were about to take center stage for the next five hours. The North Mississippi AllStars played their Hill Country blues to a receptive rain-washed crowd until one of America’s most acclaimed roots band, Los Lobos took the stage. They played their uniquely flavored roots music culminating in a passionate nod to their musical heroes with “Bertha” and “Cinnamon Girl”. Very inspiring to this appreciative crowd. When the Tedeschi Trucks Band arrived, the excited crowd was ready to dance or sway to the bluesy jams of this large unit. Large horn section with dual drummers, keys and background vocalists assured a big sound. They delivered. Susan Tedeschi’s vocals were clear and strong while Derek Trucks showed why he’s the best slide guitarist of his generation. The band played liberally from their latest release, but they also gave respectful nods to their influences with covers of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “The Sky is Crying”, Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”, George Jones’ “Blue is the Color of the Blues”. Tedeschi Trucks jammed with Los Lobos during “Goin’ Down to Mexico” and Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi AllStars played with them for extended versions of “That Did It” and “Let Me Get By”. Susan Tedeschi invited local musician Mitch Chakour (whose daughter Alicia is a member of TTB) to join them on the classic tunes “The Letter” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned”.
It was fitting on this thirtieth anniversary of the Green River Festival that history lessons on those who came before were in the forefront of these musicians’ minds. From the opening notes of our New Orleans lesson by Charles Neville with”Hey Pockey Way”,”St. James Infirmary” “Mardi Gras” into “When the Saints Go Marching In” to the final nods to classic R&B and Soul of Tedeschi Trucks, the crowd at Green River Festival were thankful for these musical lessons. Now, if only those hot air balloons had been flickering in the dusky Western Massachusetts sunset.